Antique prints come in large variety of sizes, subjects and prices. One thing in favor of buying prints is that one can find attractive antique maps and prints that will fit your decorative needs at relatively moderate prices. Indeed, the reason that the majority of prints were made was to provide the general public with decoration at affordable prices. This is something that prints do very well.
As long as you are merely looking for attractive images to hang in your home or work place, if you find something you like the look of and you pay only what is appropriate for a decorative item, then it really doesn’t matter if it is old or has any sort of historic significance or if you might be able to find it cheaper if you looked elsewhere. If you just want decoration and the price is reasonable, go ahead and buy it.
On the other hand, if you are looking for something that has some intrinsic historic or artistic value, or if you are building a collection, or if you are looking at a print that is has a more significant price, then you want to spend more time judging the print by a number of criteria. As discussed in an earlier blog, having criteria is part of what it is to be collector, but even for someone just looking to purchase one or more prints for decoration, it still makes sense to use criteria in order to judge whether to buy a particular print or not. Today I will discuss the criteria a print buyer should use in making such a decision.
The first criterion, of course, must be whether the print appeals to you. The most obvious way a print will appeal to someone is by its appearance—-you can find a print beautiful, striking, moving, or it may visually affect you in some other meaningful way. However, even a print which isn’t “attractive” in an aesthetic sense can be appealing for its humor, the message it presents, what it reminds you of, or in many other ways. Some buyers are looking only for “good investments,” in which case they don’t care if a print appeals to them or not; personally this approach is not one I like at all.
To me, prints are wonderfully appealing objects on many levels and I think it is a shame if someone purchases a print that doesn’t speak to him/her in some fashion or other. The Print Shop will certainly sell prints to those who don’t care about them in any personal way--those looking for an investment or someone just seeking something to cover a wall in an office--but I get much more pleasure when buyers love the prints they purchase. It is the feeling of sharing the joy of owning antique prints and maps which is at the core of why I went into this business and why I still love to come to work at the shop every day even after a quarter of a century.
My general advice, as I said above, is that if a print appeals to you and you aren’t paying more than what any decorative item would cost, then other factors don’t really matter that much. However, when you start spending more significant money, then it is important to consider other criteria.
If you intend to purchase a “genuine” antique print then you should make sure that you are getting an antique. Traditionally, the term “antique” applies to objects over 100 years old. Now-a-days this is somewhat changing, with some more recent items sometimes considered to be antiques. For instance, World War I posters are under 100 years old (though soon they will pass the century mark), however most people would still consider them to be antiques. The main thing is to make sure the print you are considering is from the period you think it is from. A poster of the Battle of Little Big Horn might be “old,” but if it is from the 1950s, I would not consider this to be an antique.
Your best approach with this criterion is learn to be able to tell on your own whether an object is a real antique. If you are unsure, however, it is a good idea to get a written statement about the age of the print from the seller and a guarantee that it is that old. If you are unsure and the seller won’t guarantee the age, it is ok to purchase the print as long as you wouldn’t mind having spent the money if it turns out not to be a real antique.
The condition of a print is very important in considering whether to buy it or not. Obviously, condition can affect what a print looks like. You might think that the big stain in the sky, or the tear through the bird’s body might not be that bad, but over the years these sort of blemishes can start to bother you. To some extent some paper toning and minor blemishes can make a print look more “antique” and so can actually have a positive effect on its appearance. However, it is important to make sure before buying that you will not come to regret the mat burn, tear, foxing, or other problems as time passes.
The issue of condition has a further impact beyond the visual, for condition can affect the value of a print. You should be able to purchase a print with condition problems for less than you would pay for one without those problems, but usually that still doesn’t make it a good idea. This is because you will not be able (unless you get the print conserved) to sell the print for as much nor as easily as you could for one in good shape. Prints in poor condition are always hard to sell even at a discounted price; it is always easier to resell a print in good shape for a reasonable price.
The effect of condition problems are not just aesthetic or financial, for they can actually threaten the survival of a print as well. The darkening of paper, mat burns, backing board burns and similar issues indicate that acid is present in the paper itself. This means that unless the print is deacidified, it will continue to get worse, eventually falling apart. Foxing can also continue to get worse and tears can widen. These and other condition problems are ticking time bombs and this should be factored into the decision whether to buy a print or not. If you are getting the print at a good price and you plan to have it restored, then it can be fine to buy a print in poor condition, but to buy, say, a stained Currier & Ives print for $50, which you then have to pay $200 to have conserved, does not make a lot of sense when you can buy another example of the same print in good shape for only $175-$200.
Two final thoughts on condition. First, if a print is one you really want and if it is quite rare, then it might make sense to buy one in rough condition, hoping in the long run to be able to trade up. If you do, though, it is important to at least have the print conserved so that it will survive into the future. The second thing to realize is that most prints that were framed more than about a couple decades ago are inevitably going to be in a harmful environment from improper framing. These prints will have condition problems even if these are not evident. If you buy a print that was framed some time ago, you can pretty much assume you will need to spend money to have it conserved.
The importance of a print is a criterion that often affects the decision of whether to buy it or not, and this can mean a couple different things. For instance, prints can be historically important if they had a significant role in our past. A broadside from an election, a political cartoon that affected public policy, an iconographic image from American history, a print from the first natural history of American flora and fauna, the first map to show a new state or territory, and other prints and maps can have enough historic significance that this alone gives strong reason to consider purchasing them even if the price is relatively high.
A print can also be significant if you have a collection and it fills an important role in the theme of that collection. For most collections there are a number of major prints which should be in the collection. If one of these becomes available, and if you are unsure you will get another opportunity to get this print, then the importance of the print to the collection can be a very strong reason to buy it, with the other considerations (such as condition and price) often less important.
As discussed in another blog, I do not think that scarcity-—in and of itself—-is that important a reason to purchase a print. However, if a print fits the other criteria well, and if you are unlikely find another, then you might consider purchasing a scarce print even if the price is fairly high or the condition less than desirable.
It is clear from the comments above that I think other criteria are often of more importance in considering whether to purchase a print than its price. However, that doesn’t mean that one wants to be a fool and pay a ridiculous price for a print. Even with the internet and the advent of markets like ebay, it is difficult to find comparable examples of any particular print or to find a price guide. In many circumstances, when a buyer comes across a print, there is no independent way to find out what a fair “market price” is for that print. I would guess that it won’t surprise my readers if I make the comment that there are some sellers who take advantage of this fact in order to market prints at prices that are outrageous; sometimes unintentionally and unknowingly but also sometimes very intentionally and knowingly.
So what is a buyer to do? If the price is not too high, then it probably isn’t worth worrying about too much. Even if you pay, for instance, $200 for a print that really should sell for about $100, in the long run this difference in price will not matter that much and the time and effort it would take to try to figure out if this is a fair price would probably not be worth it. For a more expensive print it matters more, so it can make sense to spend the time and effort. There are some price guides which you can find in libraries or which you can subscribe to on-line, and you can also try to search the internet for “comparable prices.” Experience is also important to help figure what a fair price is, for the longer one keeps an eye on what prints in general are selling for, the more one develops a sense of value which can be applied to a print you haven’t seen a price for before.
If you are looking at a print for sale at auction, then these suggestions are about the only ways you can try to insure you don’t pay to much. In contrast, if you are looking to buy a print from a dealer, then you also have the element of trust. There is no question that different dealers have different price structures (this will be the subject of a future blog), but most dealers will try to price their prints at a “fair market” price. Talking to other print buyers or getting to know a dealer should give you a sense of whether you feel that dealer is selling his/her prints for fair prices. It seems to me that this is what you should care about, viz. that the price is “fair,’ not that it is the lowest possible price you might be able to buy the print for. Don’t pay a fool’s price, but be willing to pay a market price.
The “market price” of prints always has a range; there is no single “fair” price for a print. As long as a print is priced fairly, the difference between whether it is selling at the top of the market vs. the bottom of the market should not be that big a factor in your decision of whether to buy or not. When buying a print, you should be more concerned with the print than with the deal. If a print meets your criteria and is priced fairly, the fact that you might be able to buy it for a bit less isn’t that important. Those who are always looking for the “best price” often get better prices than prints. If you wait to look for a better deal, the object may be gone and the next time you find one it may be a lot more expensive. My advice is not to be a fool, but also not to be a miser.
One final thought on price is that it is generally a good idea to buy the best quality of print you can afford (assuming the print meets your other criteria). Poorer quality prints rarely go up much in value and it is generally the best quality prints which increase the most in value. Also, over time the difference in cost will probably end up being insignificant while the pleasure of owning a better quality print will pay dividends over the years.
Go to part 2 of the Print Buyer's Guide, which discusses various sources from which to buy antique prints.